Saturday, July 25, 2009

John Ryan (1921-2009)

John Ryan, artist, author and animator, the creator of Captain Pugwash, whose piratical adventures originally appeared in Eagle, and animated children's shows Mary, Mungo & Midge and Noah's Ark, died at the Cottage Hospital in Rye, East Sussex, on Wednesday, 22 July, aged 88.

John Gerald Christopher Ryan was born in Rintoul Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, on 4 March 1921, the fourth son of Sir Anthony Ryan. Because of his father's work with the diplomatic service, Ryan spent much of his early life in Turkey and Morocco, where his father was posted as consul-general. Although it meant an unsettled childhood, Ryan never regretted it as he was able to use the experiences in his later work. It was in Rabat, where his bedroom window overlooked the Moroccan coast that he became interested in pirates. A keen reader, he wrote his first book at the age of seven, selling the finished work—The Adventures of Tommy Brown—to his mother for tuppence.

Ryan was educated at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, a Roman Catholic public school run by the Benedictine monks. At school his art teacher was Father Sylvester Fryer, who had been a Fleet Street cartoonist before the First World War, which inspired Ryan to make a career in Art. His artistic talent was obvious to other teachers, including his English teacher, poet Robin Atthill, who allowed him to doodle in class. His doodles and writing led to the publication of a "scurrilous" magazine at the school.

He was due to move on to art college when the Second World War broke out and instead joined the Lincolnshire Regiment, spending three and a half years in Burma fighting the Japanese, rising to the rank of Captain. During this time he drew cartoons for army newspapers, many of them unflattering portraits of bombastic officers.

Demobbed in 1945, he resumed his art studies, attending Regent Street Polytechnic, where he met his future wife, Priscilla Blomfield. In 1948 he became an assistant art master at Harrow, a post he would hold until 1955.

Ryan married in January 1950 and, as a wedding present, a friend introduced him to the Rev. Marcus Morris, who was about to launch Eagle. Morris engaged him to write and draw a humorous two bank strip, ‘‘Captain Pugwash’’ which appeared in the first issue. The strip introduced the pompous, cowardly pirate captain of the Black Pig and many of the elements that would later become famous (including Pugwash's nemesis, Cut-Throat Jake), but it was not an initial success, the humour thought to be too juvenile for the average Eagle reader. It lasted only 19 episodes.

By the time Pugwash came to an end, Ryan was already working on another strip. It was his wife who suggested ‘‘a really stupid, handsome detective’’ and drew the first sketch of ‘‘Harris Tweed: Extra Special Agent’’, who was to run in Eagle for almost 12 years.

Tweed became a caricature of ‘‘all the bonehead majors’’ Ryan had encountered in the War. He was a blundering incompetant who owed all his success as an extra special agent to the ingenuity of the boy who assisted him. The ‘boy’ was created for the readers to identify with and was the forerunner of Tom the cabin boy who filled a similar role for Captain Pugwash when he returned in children’s books and on television in the late 1950s. Tom, incidentally, was not in the original Eagle strip, although Mrs. Pugwash was. She was dropped in later incarnations of the story.

Ryan created ‘‘Lettice Leefe: The Greenest Girl in the School’’ for Eagle’s companion, Girl, and the popular strip continued in Princess when Girl was merged in 1964, a total of 16 years.

With two popular strips running, Ryan returned to his favourite pirate and created his first picture book. It was rejected by a dozen publishers before being accepted by The Bodley Head in 1956. Ryan also made several contacts at the BBC including Kevin Sheldon, a children’s television producer, whom he approached with the idea to make semi-animated shows using cut-out figures. The BBC commissioned a short pilot film starring Pugwash which led to a series of 58 black & white episodes, the first broadcast on 22 October 1957.

The films were made by Ryan and a small team using cardboard figures with movable elements (arms, legs, mouths) operated by cardboard levers which allowed the episodes to be shot in real time. Ryan drew all the characters and backgrounds required for the 50 or so 'captions' (as he called them) needed per episode. These were coloured and cut out by Sara Cole and Hazel Martingell. With Ryan, his wife and Cole operating the characters (glued, taped on pinned to the background as required), the action was lit and filmed by Bob Bura and John Hardwick on 16mm film, as the characters were moved in time to a pre-recorded soundtrack by actor Peter Hawkins. In this fashion, it took Ryan only two weeks to produce each episode.

Pugwash became a huge success and, after a brief run of a few months in Swift (1958-59), began an 8-year run as a 3-frame strip in the Radio Times (1960-68); further children's books appeared from Bodley Head.

Ryan's next TV series was Mary, Mungo & Midge, created for the BBC's "Watch With Mother" in 1969. Unlike most children's shows, Mary lives in a busy town, reflecting the real-life shift from rural to urban population centres of the intended audience, many of whom were growing up in tower blocks similar to the one in which Mary lived. The stories were narrated by newsreader Richard Baker, with Ryan's daughter Isabel playing Mary. Only 13 episodes were made.

Ryan had created "Sir Boldasbrass" for Swift in 1954 and, in 1972, a similar character featured in The Adventures of Sir Prancelot, following the exploits of Prancelot as he makes his way to the Crusades. The story was told, five nights a week, over 32 episodes, voiced once again by Peter Hawkins. Ryan later said of the character, "I came up with Sir Prancelot but he isn't as interesting [as Pugwash] to me, he's a man funny things happen to, he doesn't make them happen."

A further series of 30 colour Captain Pugwash stories were produced in 1974-75, each taking about three weeks to film. Horatio Pugwash became a huge star, the shows being broadcast abroad and his storybooks translated into foreign languages. Videos and audiobooks featuring Pugwash appeared in the 1980s as well as new books and strip cartoons.

Ryan stepped in front of the camera for his next series. The Ark Stories, broadcast in 1981 on ITV, was introduced by Ryan as he worked in his studio, surrounded by toy animals who were representative of the animals who were aboard Noah's Ark. Ryan would then begin a sketch which would lead into the story which he narrated with the aid of Percy Edwards providing animal noises.

Whilst most of Ryan's cartoons are full of witty details clearly aimed at adults, all his work has been for young children, with the exception of the weekly topical cartoons he drew for over forty years for the Catholic Herald beginning in 1963. Highly protective of his creations, Ryan sued the Sunday Correspondent in 1990 and the Guardian in 1991, forcing them to apologise for repeating an urban legend that the Pugwash cartoons had featured characters named Seaman Staines and Master Bates and, for this reason, the show would never be repeated by the BBC. Ryan was paid damages and his legal costs.

Pugwash, with a number of new characters and settings, was revived in 1998 by John Cary Films with James Saxon providing the voice of the cowardly captain, although the series remained faithful to the old style despite being produced via computers rather than the original cardboard generated imaging.

Speaking of his long association with the character, Ryan said, "I'm a lucky man, because I've managed to earn a living by doing what I love: drawing and painting every day! And I've been supported by my wonderful wife, children and grandchildren, who've helped keep Pugwash afloat, sailing the high seas for 57 years! No matter how many other characters I create, I always seem to come back to the Captain. Pugwash has two qualities which I believe are present in all of us to some degree: Cowardice and Greed. It is the conflict between these opposing emotions which make the stories work. It may be that the Captain is popular because we all have something in common with him. What would YOU do if you saw a delicious toffee on the nose of a crocodile?"

As well as his many books, Ryan also exhibited at the Royal Academy, at Trafford Gallery, and at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Much of his work is held on permanent loan at the Centre for the Study of Cartoons in the University of Kent at Canterbury. He was also a popular visiting artist at schools and libaries where he would, drawing at a flip chart while explaining how his books were written and films were made.

Ryan's last regular cartoon series, featuring "Cardinal Grotti" and set in the Vatican, appeared in the Catholic Herald. Five collections of his Catholic Herald cartoons appeared, and Ryan, a devout Catholic, also wrote a number of religiously themed books for children.

Ryan, who worked in a studio in Kensington for many years, moved to Rye in 1987. He painted backdrops for the Christmas pantomimes performed by the Rye Players and continued to draw cartoons and write until the very end, although slowed by a stroke he suffered in the late 1990s.

Obituaries: BBC News (24 July); Daily Telegraph (24 July), The Times (25 July), The Guardian (25 July), The Independent (30 July).


Illustrated Books
Captain Pugwash. London, Bodley Head, 1957.
Pugwash Aloft. London, Bodley Head, 1958.
Pugwash and the Ghost Ship. London, Bodley Head, 1962.
The Church Flippant. Cartoons on an ecclesiastical theme. Southend-on-Sea, Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1972.
Pugwash in the Pacific. London, Bodley Head, 1973.
The John Ryan Ecclesiastical Fun Book. Great Wakering, Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1973.
Rolling in the Aisles. Cartoons on an ecclesiastical theme. Great Wakering, Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1975.
Captain Pugwash and the Elephant. London, Collins, 1976.
Captain Pugwash and the New Ship. London, Collins, 1976.
Captain Pugwash and the Ruby. London, Collins, 1976.
Captain Pugwash and the Treasure Chest. London, Collins, 1976.
Pugwash and the Sea Monster. London, Bodley Head, 1976.
Pugwash the Smuggler. London, Bodley Head, 1976.
Faith, Hope & Parity. More cartoons on an ecclesiastical theme. Great Wakering, Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1977.
The Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book. London, Bodley Head, 1977.
Dodo's Delight, or, Doodle and the state secrets. London, Deutsch, 1977.
Doodle's Homework, or, The fuddi-duddi-dodo's great mathematical experiment. London, Deutsch, 1978.
The Story of Tiger-Pig. London, Odhams Books, 1978.
Tiger-Pig at the Circus. London, Odhams Books, 1978.
All Aboard!. London, Beaver Books, 1979.
Crockle Saves the Ark. London, Beaver Books, 1979.
Pugwash and the Buried Treasure. London, Bodley Head, 1980.
Crockle Takes a Swim. London, Hamlyn, 1980.
The Haunted Ark. London, Hamlyn, 1980.
The Weather Forecast. London, Hamlyn, 1980.
Roll-Call on the Ark. London, Hamlyn, 1980.
Crockle Adrift. London, Hamlyn, 1981.
The Floating Jungle. London, Hamlyn, 1981.
Crockle and the Kite. London, Hamlyn, 1981.
Mr Noah's Birthday. London, Hamlyn, 1981.
Pugwash and the Fancy Dress Party. London, Bodley Head, 1982.
The Frozen Ark. London, Hamlyn, 1982.
Action Stations!. London, Hamlyn, 1982.
The Quest for the Golden Handshake (Pugwash). London, Bodley Head, 1983.
Pugwash and the Wreckers. London, Bodley Head, 1984.
Pugwash and the Midnight Feast. London, Bodley Head, 1984.
The Battle of Bunkum Bay (Pugwash). London, Bodley Head, 1984.
Believe It Or Not! A Christmas fun book. Great Wakering, McCrimmon, 1985.
Frisco and Fred. Glasgow, Drew, 1985.
The Secret of San Fiasco (Pugwash). London, Bodley Head, 1985.
One Dark and Stormy Night. The legend of Saint Christopher. London, Bodley Head, 1986.
A Bad Year for Dragons. The legend of Saint George. London, Bodley Head, 1986.
Frisco & Fred and the Space Monster. Glasgow, Drew, 1986.
Mabel and the Tower of Babel. Oxford, Lion, 1990.
Sir Cumference and Little Daisy / Sir Cumference and Clever Dick. London, Young Piper, 1991.
Captain Pugwash and the Pigwig, and other stories. London, Viking Children's Books, 1991.
Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward. A tale of smuggling in the ancient town of Sinkport. Rye, Gungarden Books, 1991.
Jonah. A whale of a tale. Oxford, Lion, 1992.
Fatso the Fathead (Baron Fatsopilus Fitzpugwash). London, Bodley Head, 1993.
Soldier Sam and Trooper Ted. The battle that never was. London, Pan Macmillan Children's Books, 1994.
Admiral Fatso Fitzpugwash. London, Viking, 1994.
Giant-Killer. David and Goliath, the untold story. Oxford, Lion, 1995.
Mudge the Smuggler. London, Macmillan Children's, 1995.
The Very Hungry Lions. A story of Daniel. Oxford, Lion, 1996.
Murder in the Churchyard. The story of Rye's most infamous crime retold in pictures. East Sussex, Gungarden Books, 1997.
Captain Pugwash and the Birthday Party. London, Puffin, 1997.

Omnibus editions
Pugwash Ahoy! Four swashbuckling adventures (two books in slipcase, contains: Pugwash and the Sea Monster, Pugwash and the Buried Treasure, Pugwash the Smuggler, Pugwash in the Pacific). London, Octopus, 1984.
Pugwash and the Mutiny and Pugwash and the Fancy-Dress Party. Harmondsworth, Puffin, 1985.
Pugwash and the Midnight Feast and Pugwash and the Wreckers. Harmondsworth, Puffin, 1986.
The Captain Pugwash Collection (contains: The Secret of San Fiasco, The Battle of Bunkum Bay, The Quest of the Golden Handshake). London, Bodley Head, 1992.
Captain Pugwash Pirate Stories (contains: Captain Pugwash, Pugwash the Smuggler, Pugwash and the Buried Treasure). London, Cresset Press, 1992.

Piper's Tale. Rory's story of the Napoleonic Wars by Peter Stewart-Richardson. Cinque Port Press for Army Benevolent Fund, 1991.
Catholic Trivia. Our forgotten heritage by Mark Elvins. London, HarperCollins Religious, 1992.


Others (Captain Pugwash related)
Captain Pugwash Annual 1976. London, World Distributors, 1975.
Hot Chocolate, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
A Sticky Moment, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Stowaway Sheep, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Painting Contest, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Boat Race, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Vanishing Ship, adapted by Sally Byford. London, Red Fox, 2000.
Digging for Diamonds, adapted by Sue Mongredien, illus. by Ian Hillyard. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Treasure Trail, adapted by Sue Mongredien, illus. by Ian Hillyard. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Double-Dealing Duchess, adapted by Sue Mongredien, illus. by Ian Hillyard. London, Red Fox, 2000.
The Portobello Plague, adapted by Sue Mongredien, illus. Ian Hillyard. London, Red Fox, 2000.
Best Pirate Jokes by Ian Rylett. London, Red Fox, 2000.

Others (Mary, Mungo & Midge related)
Mary, Mungo and Midge Annual. London, Polystyle Publications, 1969-74.
Seven Stories About Mary, Mungo and Midge by Judy Lowe. London, Dean & Sons, 1970.
Midge's Boat Trip, retold by Daphne Jones. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1971.
Mary's Letter, retold by Daphne Jones. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1971.

Others (Sir Prancelot related)
The Sir Prancelot Annual [written by Jocelyn Phillips, illus. Toni Goffe]. London, Purnell, 3 vols, 1972-75.
Sir Prancelot in The Seige. 1972.
The Voyage of Sir Prancelot: Sunken Treasure and other sea adventures, told by Jane Morey. London, Collins, 1972.
The Adventures of Sir Prancelot (by Jane Morey, illus. Stewart):
__1 Sir Prancelot Goes to Sea. London, Collins, 1972.
__2 Count Otto the Blot. London, Collins, 1972.
__3 The Haunted Watch Tower. London, Collins, 1972.
__4 Watch the Dickie Bird. London, Collins, 1972.
__5 Splash Landing. London, Collins, 1972.
__6 The Caliph's Carpet. London, Collins, 1972.


  1. This is a perfect example of what a really good, well balanced, blog-post can be, Steve. You would seldom find this much care and attention in the limited space a newspaper can allocate to obituaries, and would allocate to the obituary of a lowly cartoonist.

    You have balanced the text with some marvelous examples of your subject's art and it's clear from the amount of research you have done that you cared about John Ryan and his work.

    Really excellent piece, really.

  2. Someone is doing a very good job of covering up the truth about Captain Pugwash's characters! I saw this on TV as a kid and (at least in my country), there was indeed a Master Bates, Seaman Staines and Roger the Cabin Boy. I e-mailed Snopes a few years ago when I saw with amazement that they were denying it, but they continue to propagate this lie. Even more amazing is that John Ryan won his lawsuits! I have made contact today with someone who will hopefully be able to provide me with copies of these original tapes.

    1. COMPLETE RUBBISH - Tom was the cabin Boy, along with Master Mate, pirates Barnabas & Willy - the other names were made up by a journalist for a satirical article he wrote



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